by Lisa Reily
Huge, swollen knees stare us in the face, only partly hidden by a nylon floral hem. We follow the flowers up to a mouth filled with random teeth and an olive-skinned face framed by dark hair, pinned to one side with a single bobby pin. Two children stand next to the enormous knees, a girl and a boy. The girl is smiley and the boy is little, and he looks a lot like Brennie.
Back in the car on the way home, Brennie whispers in my ear. “She’s not my mum. My new mum’s nicer.”
I follow his pointed eight-year-old finger. It’s right on Mum. Our mum. “Yep,” I say.
We both smile at each other and that’s that.
Brennie, Brendon, had already been to two foster homes before he came to live with our family. I was two then, and he was five. So in my mind Brennie was always my brother, no questions asked. It was only when I had to tell people how many siblings I had that I reeled off what I’d probably heard from my parents. “I have three brothers, well, two real brothers, really—Mike and Lucas—and a foster brother, Brendon.”
Mike was the eldest child in our family; then Brennie, who was a year younger; then me; and then my baby brother, Lucas, who came along as a last-minute accident. There was always a joke in our house about that. When you planned, you got a girl. Boys just turned up when and how they wanted. I was planned.
Before I was born, I think Mum wanted to do the right thing and help a child in need. She thought fostering a boy around the same age as Mike would give him and the new little boy a playmate. And they did become playmates, happy ones—most of the time. But they enjoyed beating the crap out of each other on occasion, too. Sworn to secrecy, they would biff and scuffle as quietly as possible in their room downstairs, only stopping when Mum yelled down the stairwell. Or when she came down in person with a fierce look on her face.
“What are you two boys up to?” she’d say.
Brennie was really my favourite brother most of the time. He was the kindest and most gentle. I reckon Mum thought so, too. Whenever she brought in groceries, Brennie would rush to help her. When he got older, he’d mow the lawn and wash the car—sometimes without even being asked. Mike’d just whinge or sulk. If Mum had garbage to take outside, Brennie would always say, I’ll do it, Mum!
He was the most fun, too. When we had cracker night, he’d always help me light my sparklers and run with me to make patterns in the dark, away from the other kids and Dad’s enormous, crackling bonfire; the sparklers worked better at a distance. And next to our place, there was an empty plot of land with a concrete slab on it. Brennie and I would go there, to play air guitar and scream our guts out, singing Jailbreak, that old AC/DC song. We’d act out being shot and everything. I remember Brennie loved chocolate cake—and he’d eat a whole one if Mum didn’t stop him! My funniest memory, though, was when lemonade spurted from his nose, he was laughing so much at the dinner table. Mum had a fit at him, but we still couldn’t stop giggling!
Us kids had heaps of holidays and birthdays together with our cousins, Jake and Rosemarie. Jake was my uncle and aunty’s only child. Rosemarie was adopted. Sometimes Brennie and I wondered why he wasn’t adopted, too. Then we found out it was because his real mum wouldn’t give him up. We were really sad about that and never wanted to visit her again. But Brennie loved having a new little brother who looked like him, and a half-sister, and we even got to see them a few times.
Once we had Brennie’s birthday at Adventureland. Jake and Rosemarie were there as usual, plus Brennie’s little brother and half-sister, and most of the kids from Brennie’s class at school. We had loads of fun! Lots of mums and dads came to help—so we had to wait ages for our turns on the flying fox, because all the dads wanted a go. (More than some of the kids!) Mum made a massive red skateboard cake and Brennie got a new red skateboard—exactly the one he wanted. It was the best day.
I remember a man called Mr. Bromley sometimes came to our house for cups of tea. He had skinny, freckled legs and long socks. Also a red beard. One day, he was talking something serious about Brennie to Mum, and our dog, Lulu, who was behind him, jumped out of her basket and fanged him deep in the calf. Mr Bromley held his leg up and Lulu just dangled from it, non-stop growling. She’d never done anything like that before and Mum was really sorry. I reckon that was the day Mr Bromley was trying to get us to visit Brennie’s big, fat mum. And I reckon Lulu knew it was a stupid thing to do. So her bite was worth it, because it stopped Mr Bromley from coming round so often. Brennie and I felt safer that way.
One thing that was weird about Brennie was that he wasn’t the same as Mike and me. When we were little, and Lucas was a baby, I remember coming home from school and hearing that Brennie had messed his pants in class. I thought he was smarter than that. It happened a few times, but Mum was really quiet about it and cleaned him up real quick. I sometimes heard her saying stuff on the phone about him having some sort of problem, or something. He also had trouble with homework and Mum always had to help him. Mum said Brennie was better with more practical things. And she reckoned he could sometimes be too trusting.
My brother, Mike, was the complete opposite. He could be sneaky and a bit of a trickster—you had to keep an eye on him—but he was usually good to Brennie and didn’t take advantage of how gullible he could be. Other times, he just couldn’t help himself. One time, Mum and Dad put up our out-of-the-ground pool for summer and we were all having a swim. Brennie was crouched down, snorkelling—looking at I don’t know what—and Mike was throwing leaves out of the pool. Then Mike got the idea of putting a leaf into Brennie’s snorkel. Nearly choked him to death! Brennie should have known that he needed to keep an eye on Mike. But Brennie was always forgiving.
I’m glad now that Brennie tricked me with some matches one day and I ended up with half my eyebrow missing. He called me round the back of the house, knowing full well that I couldn’t resist a box of matches. We lit them one-by-one; I just loved lighting them, their sizzling sound and smell. I can remember the smell of my burnt hair, too. I don’t know what he said that made me bring a match so close! Anyway, now I just think that’s one point to him.
When Brennie was in high school, he did really well in his woodwork class. He even made Mum a table with special French polish, but he had a lot of trouble with Maths and that. He also had a job at Franklins, the supermarket, and he taught a few kids guitar after school. He was raking it in! Mum and Dad had got him a guitar and some lessons and he took to it all like a fish to water. Teaching other kids to play was easy for him. Mostly, I just loved how he played really cool songs, like Neil Young and stuff. He could even play The Needle and the Damage Done just like on the record! He sang it, too. Really well.
It all looked good for a while. Mum and Dad were really proud of him. But then Brennie took to hanging out with some stupid kids in his class. A couple of them were real dopes, my father used to say. And when Brennie started roaming around with them on the weekends, he got into all kinds of shit. It went on till Dad said he’d have no hair left. One time, one of Brennie’s stupid mates stole a car and he and Brennie got caught. But they got let off after Dad went to the coppers and had a chat.
When Brennie left school in Year Ten, it was hard for him to get a job with his marks, so Dad got him one at work. Dad was the head of accounts in an air-conditioning firm and he used his weight to get Brennie a job in the sheet metal factory—above other boys who applied, who were a lot brighter. It was all good at first. Then Brennie started smoking dope with the dopes and got himself into trouble again. Dad wanted to kill him, ‘cause he’d let those other good boys go. And that was the tip of Brennie’s downfall. From then on, he just got worse. I think it was around the time he found out his real dad was dead. His dad had only just got out of prison. But then he got shot during a robbery or something. We never got to meet him. Only got to see a photo.
After that, Brennie ended up bonging on all night, and sleeping in. Not turning up to work. Getting warnings from his supervisor. He wouldn’t shower much either and you could smell him all about the house. Mum would try to talk to him, order him into a shower and shave. Dad’d threaten to kick him out. Nothing worked.
One night, Mum and Dad had an argument with Brennie. His supervisor had called ‘cause he hadn’t turned up for work again. Brennie had left that morning, acting like he was going there. Mum was fuming and when Dad got home, they told him that if he couldn’t be decent and have a shower and turn up for work, he couldn’t stay with us anymore. I thought Dad was going to throttle him! Brennie stormed out. A few days later, he moved out for good.
I don’t really know what happened after that, except in the years that followed, Mum and Dad spent years losing their minds over their divorce. Dad moved out. Then Mike got an arts scholarship somewhere in Melbourne and moved out, too, leaving just me and Lucas at home with Mum. In that time, Brennie lost his job and only came by now and again, mainly because Dad wasn’t there. (He would have shitted himself if he was.)
Brennie just kept finding new drop-kick mates to hang out with. Most of them were pretty sus. One time, after Brennie came by to visit with one of his new loser friends, our house got robbed. Mum put it down to Brennie and his mate. We got robbed a second time, too—straight after Mum had everything replaced. The new TV was gone and everything. To this day, Brennie reckons it wasn’t him, but he couldn’t say for sure about his mate.
I remember one good time, when Brennie came to visit Mum for Mother’s Day. He arrived with a Mother’s Day card and a little Buddha wrapped in pretty paper. He was a few weeks late, but Mum was thrilled anyway. He was really happy to see us both, and we were glad, too, because we had lost track of him. He was always losing his mobile, or leaving it somewhere. (I don’t know how many times he put his phone through the wash by mistake!) He was always moving to different housing, so he’d change his home phone number like nobody’s business!
That day, I told Brennie I’d got into uni and I’d bought myself a cheap car. When I told him, he was ecstatic and he raced down to the garage like a maniac to check out my new wheels. “I knew you’d make something of yourself,” he said. And later that afternoon, I came downstairs to find my car sparkling. Brennie was just that kind of person.
Mum cut Brennie’s hair—and his beard. He started off looking like he was from ZZ Top, only with a shorter, blacker beard. When Mum cut it all off, his hair was everywhere on the kitchen tiles and he looked bloody terrible. His face was all gaunt and his eyes looked hollow, and a bit yellow. He was skinny all over and had lost all his muscle. Mum ended up giving him some of her tight jeans and a few T-shirts. Everything he tried on sort of fell off him, but he was happy with his new second-hand clothes. And when he talked, he was the same old Brennie.
Mum, Brennie and I blabbed on until way after dinner, then I left them him alone to chat with Mum. I knew he wanted help, to start up a lawn mowing business. He told me he wanted some money to finance the set-up. After he told Mum, she thought about it a bit and agreed—but she wasn’t about to hand over any cash. She told Brennie he’d have to move back in and clean himself up. Then she’d help him. But Brennie wanted none of it, so the whole thing went by the wayside.
After Brennie left that night, I had a massive blue with Mum. I felt like she and Dad had let Brennie down. That he felt different to Mike and Lucas and me. Like maybe he didn’t feel loved or something. That he didn’t belong anywhere and he needed a chance. Mum cried and told me that she wanted to help him, but he needed to come her way. My blood boiled like crazy about it. Brennie was my kindest, nicest brother. He deserved a chance.
After that, I know that Brennie spent some time in prison for stealing, and I think for dealing drugs. He ended up in rehab—for alcohol and heroin addiction. He had a baby with a girl named Janelle, who was a smackie and real trouble. Worked at some guy’s marijuana plantation in the country somewhere, but got ripped off. One night, Mum told me that Brennie’d changed his surname back to McDermott, his real dad’s name. At first I was hurt, but then I realised he was just changing it to get further away from the cops, and some scary blokes he’d met. He needed to start again, kind of with a new identity. But it still wasn’t a good one. It was all a big, stupid mess.
By the time I hit thirty, Brennie became a distant memory. Mum tried to chase him up a few times, but with no luck. I nagged her a lot about it one day; I thought we should try to find him one last time. Mum got straight onto it. She spent weeks searching and ringing everyone she could think of, and finally she got a hold of him. We found out then that, around the time Mum got a new phone number, Brennie had tried to call. When he couldn’t get through on her old one, he thought she didn’t want to know him anymore. So he’d stopped trying and disappeared. Mum and I felt terrible.
After that, Brennie came around once or twice in the next ten years or so before Mum died. If I didn’t chase him up again, he wouldn’t have known. I invited him to her funeral and he was really sad. I made sure he came up to the front with Mike, Lucas and me and I invited him to Mum’s place afterwards. He ate heaps of chocolate cake. Heaps of it. I kept giving him bigger slices and he just kept going. “I’ve always had a sweet tooth,” he said, winking at me.
When Mum was in bed, dying, I asked her if she wanted to see Brennie, but she said no. She got sick very quickly and didn’t want to see anyone. She was in a lot of pain. I felt guilty, not letting him see her. But I had to listen to her. Heaps of relatives wanted to drop in all of a sudden, too. Just nosey. I acted like a bodyguard at her bedroom door. Took all her phone calls for her.
Mum didn’t leave anything for Brennie in her will, so I went to visit him. I took the little Buddha he’d given her, and the French-polished table he made her when he was in school. I shouted him dinner with his girlfriend, too. Spent heaps on Chinese takeaway, so he could have enough meals for a week in his fridge. It was nice hanging out with him again, but he looked and sounded really different.
Brennie was now in his forties and had got himself some false teeth. His voice was rougher, more country-like, and not as well-spoken. He was a bit more like his old self, body-wise, but he still didn’t seem completely healthy. He told me he was taking methadone to keep him on track. He had Hep C. He was in housing and getting a carer’s pension for looking after his new girlfriend, who had liver damage. She was also bipolar. But she was the one who saved him, so he wanted to look after her.
He told me that he had a job working as a mechanic and he worked really long hours. He was doing the job of a head mechanic, but he wasn’t fully qualified so his boss didn’t pay him much. He was getting cash most of the time, so his boss had him over a barrel. Brennie said he felt used, but he was glad for the routine. He told me he liked looking after his girlfriend, and doing the lawn and the edges round the house, and tinkering about under his car. “It’s all keeping me alive,” he said. “I like me job anyway.”
Later that night, Brennie and I had a cup of tea and I asked him if he still played the guitar. He got up, went to the bedroom, and came back with a brand new one. I asked him to play and he played The Needle and the Damage Done just like on the record. He sang it, too. Really well. And it made me teary.
He told me not to worry about him. That he was proud of me. That he’d made his bed and he’d lie in it. He told me he should have listened to Mum and Dad. That he’d messed his life up unnecessarily. But he was okay and happy with things now. He was okay, he said. And because he didn’t cry or anything, I felt like he really was.
After that day, I had a few phone calls from Brennie. Once he put his phone through the wash again—yep, same old Brennie—and I lost contact with him for a while. I sent him a few Woolies vouchers and some overseas postcards, but never heard back from him. Then I got a call out of the blue, just to say hi. It’s hard to keep in contact now that I’m miles away. But at least I know that Brennie is out there, and happy. And I know now, that he’s doing okay.
About the Author:
Lisa Reily is a former literacy consultant, dance director and teacher from Australia. Her poetry and stories have been published in several journals, such as Panoply, Amaryllis, Riggwelter, River Teeth Journal (Beautiful Things), and Magma. Lisa is currently a full-time budget traveller and her writing is often inspired by her journey. You can find out more about Lisa at lisareily.wordpress.com